Last week I posted my annoyance at studies that put more work in to proving that substitute a potential proximal cause for the real issue without adequately proving that was a valid substitution. At the time I was talking about food deserts, but today I found another great example. A study that has gone viral links homophobic behavior with secret homosexual desires.
Now, when I first heard these results in passing, I was pretty surprised. I spent years in a Baptist school with plenty of people who were quite clear about their homophobia, and I have always thought it overly simplistic when people say that’s all repressed homosexuality. I think the reasons behind any prejudice are likely to be complicated and multifaceted. Plus, the logic seemed pretty sensationalistic…..and after all, we don’t accuse misogynists of wanting to be women.
Anyway, I hadn’t had time to look in to this study, but I ran across this takedown by Daniel Engber on Slate today. I thoroughly enjoyed the article (and extra credit to Slate for not being 100% PC). The author points out that the results of this study are only as trustworthy as the semantic association method (the implicit association test) they used to prove it. This technique, which essentially involves showing a subliminal message followed by a picture, can be questionable. From the Slate article:
Should we trust this interpretation of the data? In the Times op-ed, the authors claim that the reaction-time task “reliably distinguishes between self-identified straight individuals and those who self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.” Their formal write-up of the work for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is a bit less sanguine on the method, citing just one other study that has used this approach, and saying it “showed moderate correspondence with participants’ self-reported sexual orientation.”
So there’s that.
The other issue that Engber didn’t mention is that this study was performed on college freshmen. I REALLY hate when people generalize from that age group because….stop me if I’m getting crazy here…I am pretty sure kids that age have a less well developed sense of identity than the adult population at large.
Even if the data were 100% accurate, I think that the youngness of this sample would skew the results. At least when I went to college, quite a few kids came out during that time, and it was a time of questioning identity for pretty much anyone. According to the best research I could find, the average gay person doesn’t even self-identify as gay until 16, and the majority of people come out either in college or after developing an independent life. So the chances that expressions of sexual identity, especially subconscious expressions, may look different at 18-20 is pretty well supported.
Now I’m pretty sure there will always be Ted Haggard’s or Larry Craig’s in this world…just like there will always be John Edwards or Elliot Spitzer’s. Sex, gay or straight, will always capture headlines more than boring things like tax evasion, even though they are both hypocritical. Still, with studies like this, I urge caution. Accepting the result means accepting that words on a screen and hundreths of a second of reaction time can accurately capture homophobia, and that a 19 year olds perspective on the world can translate to all adults. If you believe both of those, then go ahead and quote the study. Otherwise, you may want to hold your judgement for a bit longer.